by Tom Patterson, excerpted from complex GIFTS, Introducing the Artists of Signature Home
When Harold Crowell was admitted to Western Carolina Center (WCC - a facility for persons with developmental disabilities within the N.C. Department of Human Resources), in 1975, he was a highly troubled young man who had a long history of problems that stemmed largely from his mentally disabled status and our society's lack of adequate resources for people like him.
The WCC staff had a twelve-year track record of relative success in helping residents learn to live with their disabilities and overcome them to varying degrees. The Center's main goal had always been, as it still is, to give residents the skills they need to return to their communities. In Crowell's case, the key to fulfilling this goal was encouraging his use of a skill he had evidently always had but never been allowed to adequately develop - namely his talent for drawing.
Crowell's innate artistic abilities weren't immediately apparent to the Center's professional therapists, but they were to the aesthetically attuned eye of Ted Stamatelos, a visual artist who came to work at Western Carolina Center about a year after Crowell became a resident and remained there until 1986. Stamatelos was hired to coordinate an experimental fine arts program at WCC - a program that has since grown substantially and become a model for other arts programs for the developmentally disabled. He was still in the early stages of creating this program when, as he recalls, "Harold Crowell wandered into the art studio one afternoon, and I asked him if he'd like to do some drawing. I immediately saw that he had phenomenal potential. He was just incredibly talented, and he quickly became the centerpiece of the arts program."
Stamatelos says he quickly realized that Harold's drawing activities were more important to him than anyone knew. "During the time I was getting to know Harold," he recalls, "I found out that he had been making little drawings on gum wrappers because he hadn't been given anything else to draw on. And at night the people from the cleaning staff would come and clean up his room, and they would throw away any loose gum wrappers that they found lying around. That upset Harold, so he began eating the gum wrappers after he had drawn on them, so that no one could take them and throw them away. The drawings were so important to him that he literally internalized them."
Stamatelos didn't attempt to teach Crowell how to draw or paint, as a traditional art instructor would do. Instead he confined his role to providing materials for Crowell to use, a place for him to work, and encouragement to create whatever he felt like creating. In other words, he simply facilitated what, to Crowell, came quite naturally.
Other aspects of WCC's overall therapeutic program were highly important to Crowell's progress at the Center. Those who knew him during his 18 years there cite the benefits of the speech therapy, music therapy, and social-skills training he received, and they also credit the Center's staff for teaching him how to control emotions that in his earlier life tended to overwhelm him. But the unanimous opinion of these participants in Crowell's extraordinary life confirms the centrality of art to his success.
Dr. J. Iverson Riddle has served as WCC's Director since it opened in 1963, and has known Crowell for more than 20 years - longer than anyone outside the artist's own family. He remembers that "When Harold first came here, he was very depressed and unfriendly. He was sometimes aggressive, and he sometimes heard voices that others could not hear. Now he's one of the most jovial, warm, affectionate, neat people to be around that I know. I don't believe that anything else would have done that for him but art." Riddle believes that Ted Stamatelos' ability to recognize Crowell's creative potential illustrates the value of applying an artistic perspective to the circumstances of people with disabilities. He notes that "Physicians, nurses and other people who work in this field are trained on what I call 'the broken model.' Their approach is to examine the person and find out why he's 'broken'
and how to 'fix' him. But artists aren't trained like that. While the rest of us are looking for what's 'broken,' they look for a speck of sunshine and then build on it. That's a very positive approach that we've tried to apply here."
James Harold Jennings, 1999, acrylic on canvas, 24" X 30" by Harold Crowell
Crowell is much more than a mentally challenged individual who enjoys making art. He is first and foremost an artist, and his work now commands the respect and attention of a wide audience in the contemporary art world. The fact that Crowell is in some ways disabled isn't a significant factor in the art world's reception of his work. More important to his emergent position on the contemporary art scene is the fact that he has no formal training. It was his self-taught status and the intuitively expressive character of his art that drew the attention of that growing segment of the contemporary art audience whose primary focus is art made by 'outsiders' - people who didn't study art but nonetheless feel compelled to create it. Crowell was one of 109 artists surveyed in Signs and Wonders: Outsider Art Inside North Carolina, folklorist and photographer Roger Manley's 1989 book published in conjunction with an exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. More recently, Crowell's work was included in the landmark exhibition, Passionate Visions of the American South: Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present, and photographically reproduced with biographical information and commentary in the accompanying 340-page catalog. Organized by Alice Rae Yelen for the New Orleans Museum of Art, this broad regional survey show traveled to museums in San Francisco, Portland, Raleigh, and Washington, D.C., and the catalog stands as an important document in the emerging field of self-taught art.
A Home for Special Artists
In 1990, soon after Crowell began to receive some recognition for his talents from outside Western Carolina Center, his progress at the Center was evaluated by a team of staff members who determined that he was ready to make the transition to living in a less restrictive environment. At that point, Center officials launched a search for a living situation for Crowell that would provide him with the minimal supervision he required, while also meeting his creative needs as an artist. Research soon led them to the conclusion that no group home anywhere would be able to accommodate Crowell's special artistic needs, and on that basis they began discussing the prospect of establishing such a facility under the auspices of the WCC Foundation, a non-profit organization affiliated with WCC and also committed to serving the developmentally disabled.
There ensued a two-year planning period, during which Crowell remained at the Center and was reclassified as an assistant to creative therapy program director Chesley Sigmon. With funding through a special grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Foundation was able to build a specially modified brick ranch-style house in a northeastern suburb of Morganton, and in March, 1993, officials from the Foundation and the Center inaugurated Signature Home for Artists. Crowell moved in immediately, just as spring was beginning.
Signature is officially defined as "a group home for artistically gifted adults who happen to be developmentally disabled," which "offers an individualized program of training and experience in the arts, mountain crafts, music and other specialties."
To qualify for admission to Signature's program, applicants are required to be eighteen or older, developmentally disabled, but able to function with only minimal supervision, and possessed of "sustained interest or skill in the arts/crafts domain." To demonstrate their artistic interests and abilities, applicants must submit examples of their work for review in a process akin to that employed at an art school. Crowell currently lives at Signature Home with five other artists: potter Bill Smith, painters Ricky Needham and Brooks Yeomans, composer Thomas McCrary, and classical vocalist Charlene Sawyer.
The next phase of Signature's development was the opening of a gallery and art studio in downtown Morganton. Located in a turn-of-the-century commercial building on Union Street, Signature Studio XI, as it is called, opened in September 1994. The front room of this facility has been transformed into a gallery that hosts regular exhibitions by Signature artists as well as other contemporary artists from the local community and the surrounding region. The rear section is a 500 sq. ft. studio with adjoining storage space, and this is where the Signature artists now spend several hours of every weekday working on their self-initiated creative projects.
The doorway between the gallery space and the studio area is always open, and the Signature artists evidently enjoy having visitors drop in to talk with them and see what they've made. Even when the artists' work isn't hanging in the gallery, gallery director Lea Anne Webb will give a tour of the studio, where unsold pieces are stored or informally displayed. When one of the artists sells a piece, 20% of the proceeds goes into a bank account reserved for art supplies, while the remaining 80% is deposited in the artist's personal bank account.
Harold Crowell has come a remarkably long way since he arrived in Morganton, North Carolina, more than 20 years ago, and he has brought quite a few people with him in one way or another. The old Shaker hymn that has been popularly adopted for all manner of secular purposes in recent years celebrates the wonder of "Simple Gifts." But it's all too easy to dismiss individuals such as Crowell and his fellow Signature artists as "simple," either in their personalities or their artistic abilities. Their special gifts, like the circumstances of their biological inheritance and their day-to-day lives, are anything but simple. They deserve our gratitude and our admiration for sharing these complex gifts with us, and for the example they provide for others who struggle with difficulties similar to theirs.